You've probably seen these spiky striped beauties known as lionfish floating around in tanks for years, but they haven't stayed there. They were meant for aquarium life, but someone dumped a few of these slow-moving Asian fish into our coastal waters back in the '80s. What happened since has been a serious invasion of our undersea real estate.
Nonnative to this part of the world and lacking any natural predator, lionfish present the deadliest marine incursion to date. Females release 30,000 eggs at a time, and because the fish can stand a variety of depths, water temperatures and levels of salinity, they have become an ecological threat in the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean and into the Atlantic as far north as Rhode Island. They aren't particular about what they eat, and their giant mouths hoover up sea creatures half their size, shells and all.
It turns out that what's an aquarium fish in our part of the world is a popular food fish on the other side of the globe. The lionfish offers excellent quality meat. When cooked, its firm white meat tastes like snapper, black sea bass or grouper-light. It can be fried, boiled, baked, steamed or poached. Unlike Japanese fugu, which has poisonous internal organs, there is no internal part of the lionfish that is dangerous; once the venomous external spines are removed (or cooked in high heat), the entire fish is safe to eat.
You could even become a lionfish hunter yourself. Because their population is out of control, there's no minimum on size or closed seasons. You can use spears or nets and catch as many as you like, all year round. Filleting a lionfish is much like any other: Hold the fish by its gill area or side fins and avoid the 18 spines located on the backs and undersides. You can use puncture-resistant gloves or remove the spines before filleting. By the way, no one has died from a venomous encounter with a lionfish – it's just really going to sting. If it happens, immerse the wound in hot water for 30-90 minutes and if it doesn't subside, head to the doctor.
Aware of the devastating impact on our waters, Grills Seafood has launched a lionfish program to get us used to seeing this fish on more and more menus – there's even a counter on their website of how many they've served. They have come up with a stunning and delicious presentation of lionfish they call "froiled": It's flash-fried with the spines on, then broiled until tender and glazed with a rich sweet and savory sauce. It's important to note that the spines are no longer venomous when flash-fried – but you probably wouldn't eat that part, anyway.
Tiffins also has lionfish on their menu, served with fermented black bean sauce, Thai green papaya slaw and peanuts. It's listed as "Whole Sustainable Fish" and hey, if Disney's Animal Kingdom is serving lionfish for $45, you know it's got to be tasty.
Looking for local purveyors so you can cook up the little creeps yourself? Try Lombardi's Seafood, but call before you go. Many seafood distributors have a hard time keeping lionfish in stock.